Jews of Turkey see 500 years of peace shattered




By Mark Huband

Financial Times, 2 December 2003

The clothsellers of Nakiye Elgün street are becoming used to the sound of broken glass. Shards, splinters and dust are the sparkling remnants of the day that terror shattered not only their businesses, but the harmony of their daily lives.

A deep trough outside the street’s synagogue – one of 17 synagogues in Istanbul – marks the place where a car bomb tore through shopfronts, cars and passers-by. The November 15 bombing on Nakiye Elgün, and the near-simultaneous bombing of another synagogue a mile away, left 23 dead and 303 wounded.

Now, Istanbul’s 22,000-strong Jewish community is wondering whether its days of peace and security in Turkey are at an end.

“Of course the harmony between Jews and Muslims is damaged by bombs,” says Isak Katalan, a retired Jewish businessman, as he walks past the debris on Nakiye Elgün. “It might be a warning to Turkey. But I don’t know what it is a warning of.”

The synagogue car bombs were not the first acts to have shaken Turkey’s 25,000 Jews, who have been living in peace with the Turks for over 500 years. In August a 39-year-old Jewish dentist, Yasef Yahya, was found dead in his Istanbul surgery, his hands tied behind his back and a single gunshot to his head.

The father of two was on the executive board of a Jewish society that looked after the aged. “A few days after the murder, the other board members began to get threatening telephone calls from people who said they killed Yahya,” said a Jewish businessmen. “They asked for money. They said ‘pay or die like Yasef Yahya’.”

In another murder in October the body of Moiz Konur, a food wholesaler, also shot dead with his hands tied, was found outside Istanbul. The leaders of the Jewish community met Istanbul’s governor and police chief, and safety measures around the city’s synagogues were stepped up. Some Jewish society board members fled the country.

“The murders and the synagogue bombings may or may not be connected, but to us they looked like part of the same thing,” says the businessman. “Many Jews don’t feel secure in Turkey any more. Many of the young people who are abroad at universities will not come back. This is the destiny of my race.”

Synagogues have now been closed indefinitely. Youth and family social clubs, which offer library and sports facilities, and even discotheques, have been shut. Shalom, the weekly newspaper published in Turkish and Ladino – a Spanish dialect brought when Spain’s Jews were expelled and found their way to Ottoman Turkey in 1492 – is considering whether to continue publishing.

The city’s Jewish community is in flux, says Sami Kohen, a journalist. “The community has been shaken,” he comments. “People don’t know what to do. Emigration is not being spoke about yet. But if things get worse people will start asking: ‘Are we wanted here? How much longer can we stay?’.”

With Morocco, Turkey’s 25,000 Jewish population is one of the most substantial in the region outside Israel. “Yet the presence of the Jews in Turkey cannot be measured in numbers alone,” says Seyla Benhabib, professor of political science and philosophy at Yale university and an Istanbul Jew.

“They are a testament to the peaceful coexistence of Jews and Muslims throughout the old Levant. This is something the murderous forces of Islamic terrorism would like to obliterate.”


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.